failure, a Canon Powershot, and a Journey
When my interest in photography began I had little knowledge of the craft. In fact, my experience up until the purchase of my first digital camera was near none. For a long time my family didn’t own a camera and my only real experience with a camera was in a high school photography course which I failed.
It had been seven years since I failed that photography class before I even thought about buying a camera, and the first camera I personally bought was a Canon Powershot A75 boasting 3.2 megapixels. I didn’t fall in love with that camera, but I was in love with making photos and thus my journey began.
Having decided that I wanted to learn the craft from the inside out I decided that I needed to explore film photography again. I ignored the fact that I had a perfectly good Minolta SRT101 from my high school course and proceeded to buy a Canon T2. The 12 year old voice in my head that guides most of the decisions I make in life chimed in that if it was good enough for Andre Agassi it was good enough for me. The camera was purchased at a generic big box store and affixed to it was 28-90mm of insufficient glass.
Once, while standing in my kitchen I can recall thinking “why don’t they make a 1-1000mm lens? Now that would be something.” Although it was something I wondered and immediately dismissed, I didn’t really understand why it was silly. What I did know is that I needed more; I needed more wide angle, and more zoom, no, make that more super zoom in my life. I didn’t even know what kind of photos I wanted to make, but I knew that my own legs couldn’t get me close enough, and simultaneously far enough away.
Ten long Years
Last year I had the opportunity to hear Alec Soth speak in Tokyo and someone in the crowd asked him how long it takes for you to “make it.” His response was that basically it took him ten years. The first three or four of which were spent figuring out how your camera works and the kind of photos you want to make.
Now, I don’t know if Alec Soth ever used zoom lenses, but I think what he said about using the first three or four years to figure out what it is you’re doing and how it all works is important and true. You’ll spend a lot of time in the beginning just figuring out the gear side of things and contrary to what you’ll read in a lot of places, zoom lenses are not the devil.
Over time I bought the Canon 100-400mm, the 17-40mm, the 24-70mm, the 70-200mm, and the list goes on and on. I own none of those lenses today. It’s not that they weren’t good lenses, but rather that my tastes and needs changed leading me to lenses that were better suited to the way I want to shoot.
My journey towards prime lenses wasn’t as intentional as I’d have liked, but rather it was the result of time and experience. I’ve never been much on bokeh, and I didn’t really have a need for fast lenses until I started my foray into wedding photography which is when my 4’s and 2.8’s turned into 1.4’s and I began giving up the zooms for faster lenses and thus the switch.
As an assistant for a local wedding photographer I saw first hand how prime lenses could be used in far more situations than I’d have though. Instead of switching lenses from a 50mm f/1.4 to something wider my mentor would often shoot through an open doorway or window. If he was shooting wider and needed to be close, he’d just get close instead of switching lenses which I might have done. All of that isn’t to say he never used a zoom lens, but for me seeing the use of prime lenses in small spaces taught me a lot about how I could use primes more effectively in large spaces, or outside. The questions which arose at weddings answered a lot of the subconscious questions that existed in my photographic life.
Photography tends to feel like a race for a lot of people in the beginning. You’re sprinting as fast as possible toward some goal like booking work, or getting published, and I think for a lot of people we shop our way toward these goals. There’s a pill for everything after all and I know in the beginning that’s what I did. “If it was only full-frame I could. . .” Or “If it was with a Contax 645 then it would look more like. . .” People often say. Rather than master what I had I bought things that I thought would make me a better photographer. A lot of the things I bought were zoom lenses as they often offered the easiest answer to the things I was trying to do, though they weren’t always the right answer. It’s hard to look at that in writing and accept it as the truth, but it is.
The irony of zoom lenses, at least when in my hands, is that they’re typically used at one of two focal lengths: either at full zoom or fully wide. Most often I’d find myself using them at their full zoom. Today I own only one zoom which I use for surf photography and taking pictures when you leave your blinds open. It’s an excellent lens that opens up a lot of possibilities for me photographically that can’t be solved by moving position for everything else I use a prime lens.
The lenses I own now are not the fastest lenses you can buy. They’re also not the sharpest lenses you can buy. But, they’re lenses that suit the way I like to shoot in that they require me to interact more with a scene rather than solve a compositional equation with a piece of gear. In life as in photography there’s often a lot of answers to different problems so don’t listen to the argument about zooms vs. primes and find something that suits you.
Before closing and in the interest of coming full circle I should tell you that the Minolta SRT101 I mentioned in the begging of the article has a prime lens on it, and after years of chasing formats, focal lengths, and cameras it has become one of my favorites. It’s often painful and funny the things you learn over time.
Hans-Peter Linz recently wrote a great piece on his own journey with prime lenses which inspired my reflection. If you haven't see it yet be sure to take a look, here.